August 28, 2007

Firewater

Filed under: China,food — Kim @ 7:27 pm

Went to a wedding last week and played the toast the foreigner game.

Most of the time, thank God, we were toasting with watery Chinese beer, but towards the end someone got out some Taiwanese 55% baijiu and so off we went with that for a few shots.

And, perhaps because it was an expensive bottle from Taiwan, it was not a totally grim experience. Quite smooth drinking for a 55% liquor and a pleasant grainy dry flavour, with a long aftertaste of fire and brimstone.

To say that baijiu does not have a good reputation amongst expats in China is putting it wildly mildly. I’ve seen people cringe, wince and shudder at their memories of baijiu evenings, and for many it is simply known as “the nasty stuff”.

Here’s a couple of representative expat comments on China’s national firewater…

The shanghaiist says

If ever you’ve imagined taste-testing insecticide or paint thinner, Chinese white wine, or baijiu (白酒), should be a fair approximation.

And Comrade Language up in Beijing claims that baijiu’s special flavour comes from the secret ingredients of “rodents, migrant workers, and dung.”

And how about this from Wapedia? It’s not – at least not obviously – a dig, but it speaks volumes about why westerners have problems with the stuff:

Jiang xiang (醬香): A highly fragrant distilled liquor of bold character. To the Western palate, fragrant baijiu can be quite challenging. It has solvent and barnyard aromas, with the former, in combination with the ethanol in the liquor, imparting a sharp ammonia-like note.

Barnyard aromas? Sounds like there really is dung in it.

But I would like to commit heresy by mooting that baijiu can be damn good. No, really, it can…this is not a sick joke, honestly. However, it has to be rice baijiu and it should be sipped straight from the fridge, or served with ice.

Rice is God’s gift…not sorghum or millet or any of that crap that goes into normal baijiu. Drink rice baijiu, or a rice mix such as Wuliangye (五粮液), and drink it cold and it can be as complex and rewarding as a good whisky.

I made a similar mistake with Japanese sake when I first went to Japan. The typical – and wrong – way to drink sake is hot after a meal. To be fair it’s nothing like as strong as baijiu but it’s easy to quaff and will deliver a hangover as foul and wretched and soul destroying as anything baijiu can manage. This is because most places will sell cheap sake (with loads of added brewer’s alcohol) for warming because you can’t really taste much when its warm anyway.

But good sake drunk cold was a revelation. I love good wine, but I think I like good sake more. The amount of flavour those master Japanese brewers manage to get out of rice is astonishing and the range of taste is just as varied as wine. Quality sake and fresh sushi are a sublime combination.

But here I am gibbering on about sake. My point is that it is rice that does it. Here’s a big Cheers to chilled rice baijiu!

Buy a bottle this weekend and put it in your fridge. Go on, try it, you might like it!

5 Comments

  1. I agree completely that baijiu can be incredibly good, but I’m not sure about this cold, rice thing you’ve got going. The baijiu problems I’ve had have had less to do with the grain or temperature and more to do with the quality.

    Comment by chriswaugh_bj — August 29, 2007 @ 4:50 am

  2. Humm, I have never had it before but I have heard about it. I have refused every time.

    Comment by Don't Eat My Buchela! — August 30, 2007 @ 3:55 am

  3. I remember the first time I tried Moutai. ‘Low grade jet fuel’ was what sprang to mind. I don’t think I will ever get used to it, and I try to avoid it as much as possible. I did find out that my little Primus Omnifuel camping cooker runs quite well on the 55% alcohol grades.

    Comment by Starnded Mariner — September 8, 2007 @ 1:02 pm

  4. It’s great at the high end and the VERY low end. Erguotou 55 – cold.

    For a change, steep some star anise and fennel seed and you’ve got a quick anisette.

    Comment by Josh — September 11, 2007 @ 10:41 am

  5. […] drink too much baijiu this festive season or you might end up like […]

    Pingback by East-West Station » Merry Christmas! — December 24, 2008 @ 4:15 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.